Of the thousands of hikers who attempt to thru-hike the 2,190 miles of Appalachian Trail each year, only about 25% complete the trail. The Appalachian Trail is a prolific trek, covered by the travel writing greats (cc: Bill Bryson) and attempted by outdoor enthusiasts from around the world. To give us the full download on how to prepare for hiking the Appalachian Trail—including the most popular routes and landmarks, getting your gear together, and the culture of the Appalachian Trail—we tapped thru-hiker Carolyn Mohn. Mohn thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2017 and is now a member of the Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club and a dedicated trail maintainer responsible for four miles of the Appalachian Trail near Rausch Gap in Pennsylvania.
For those considering taking time off to hike the Appalachian Trail, here’s what you need to know about the entire experience:
The Most Popular Appalachian Trail Routes
Mohn lays out the three ways you can thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. It should be noted that for it to count as a thru-hike, the entire trail must be completed within 12 months, though thru-hiking typically takes five to seven months.
The North-Bound route, or NOBO, is “what the vast majority of potential thru-hikers set out to do.” It starts at Springer Mountain, in Georgia, and ends at the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine.
The South-Bound route, or SOBO, is “less popular because you’re starting in some of the hardest hiking.” SOBO hikers start at Mount Katahdin and end at Springer Mountain.
The final approach of thru-hiking is the Appalachian Trail Flip-Flop, where you hike the trail in deliberately sectioned out pieces. “There’s tons of ways to do a flip-flop,” says Mohn. “But the ATC [Appalachian Trail Conservancy] organizes a Flip-Flop kickoff from Harpers Ferry.”
Mohn flip-flopped and reminds hikers that the “AT Conservancy really encourages flip-flopping! It’s less impact on the trail that gets crowded in the spring with north-bounders.”
“I didn’t want to deal with crowded shelters or snow in the south. You wouldn’t think that a trail gets ‘crowded’ but when you have everyone wanting to camp near a shelter, that’s when crowding becomes an issue,” she continues.
She highly recommends anyone looking to flip-flop starts in Harpers Ferry at the ATC kickoff event. “I was worried that I would lose the camaraderie which is such a big part of the AT, but there were a number of people that started during the Flip-Flop festival like I did, so we had our own small group. That’s actually how I met my hiking partner, who I ended up hiking the entire trail with,” says Mohn.
How Long Does Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail Take?
To be recognized as a thru-hiker, you have to trek either NOBO, SOBO, or every part of the trail while flip-flopping within 12 months. It takes most thru-hikers five to seven months. Mohn started in Harpers Ferry, WV on April 23, 2017. She summited Mount Katahdin (the Appalachian Trail’s northern terminus) in Maine, which was her mid-point on July 21, 2017. Mohn then took a week off and started back in Harpers Ferry on August 1, 2017 and finished at Springer Mountain, Georgia—where the NOBO hikers start. So, it took Mohn approximately six months.
Preparing: Your Headspace, Your Permits and Literature, and Your Life on the Trail
In talking to us about the Pacific Crest Trail, American hiking guru Barney Mann said the preparation was, first and foremost, mental—a sentiment that Mohn echoes. “It’s more a test of your mental endurance than anything else. Know your reasons why you’re hiking and what you want to get out of it. Remind yourself of those reasons on the bad days, because you will have them.”
In terms of physical preparation, beyond staying in good shape prior to your departure (whether that means doing twice weekly training hikes, running, or whatever cross-training you tend towards), Mohn recommends starting the trail with “low miles to build up your muscles and endurance.” That’s the beauty of flip-flopping on the Appalachian Trail—you can opt to start in an area that will ease you in before starting on the more challenging terrain. Mohn says starting in Harpers Ferry is common for flip-floppers because it makes for a more mellow introduction to the terrain.
Thru-hikers need permits to complete a few select parts of trail throughout. For example, they need a permit in the Great Smoky Mountains to hike through the backcountry. When planning your route and handling the logistics of thru-hiking before setting out, there are a few tried-and-true thru-hiking books many rely on. Mohn suggests The AT Guide (commonly referred to as Awol’s guidebook). She also says a lot of hikers now use the Atlas Guides app.
As you embark on your Appalachian Trail journey, there’s a lot to adjust to. But the culture and camaraderie found on the trail eases the transition. As part of your introduction to trail traditions, you’ll get a trail name—Mohn’s was Spice, because she always had a spice kit and hot sauce on hand.
“People often see the trail as separate from the ‘real world,’” says Mohn. That’s why trail names are so significant: “It’s seen as a new identity.”
As for the finances of thru-hiking, Mohn says to budget $1,000 per month at the very least, because between gear repairs, food, showers, hostels, laundry, and general unexpected costs, life on the trail can add up. And of course, that’s separate from buying the gear you’ll need before starting, which will include a pack, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, cooking supplies, and electronics, among many other provisions. Gear is one of the most hotly contested subjects on the Appalachian Trail—the best way to chart out exactly what you need is to refer to a guidebook and talk to a few thru-hikers about what gear worked best for them.
The Best Landmarks on the Appalachian Trail
There are arguably too many famous stretches of the AT to list them all. The Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee are a highlight. The Mar-Hau Loop in Virginia brings you to stunning waterfalls and swimming holes. Thru-hikers see not only the summits of Mount Katahdin and Springer Mountain but the magic of Shenandoah National Park, Mount Greylock, and Mount Washington. And then, of course, there’s the 100-mile stretch in Maine close to the terminus.
Mohn says the 100-mile wilderness in Maine is particularly fun because, as you’re hiking through the stretch that offers no access to the outside, you’ll encounter lakes to swim in nearly every day. Bill Bryson, famed travel author, wrote in A Walk in the Woods that “Maine is deceptive. It is the 12th smallest state, but it has more uninhabited forest—10 million acres—than any other state but Alaska.”
Mohn also says, “The White Mountains in New Hampshire were incredible.” That’s where you’ll find Mount Washington. Mohn says, though the hiking is strenuous and the weather is ever-changing, “in the Whites, there are a number of AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club) huts that as a thru-hiker you can do a work-for-stay. So I did lots of random chores for free food and a warm spot on the hut floor.”